After a convincing 26-17 victory by the Las Vegas Raiders over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Raiders fans have plenty to be excited about. The team is 2-0 after beating two playoff teams from a year ago and there have been several promising individual performances along the way.
However, Sunday’s game was far from perfect for the Silver and Black, and the team still has a few areas of improvement.
WINNER: Derek Carr
With a 75.7 percent completion percentage, 382-yard and two-touchdown performance, Derek Carr shut up a lot of doubters against the Steelers and proved a lot of the narratives surrounding him wrong.
One of the biggest criticisms of Carr in recent years is that he’s inconsistent game to game and will look like an MVP candidate one week and middling starter the week after. Well, he’s now put together two very impressive outings to start the 2021 season and currently leads the NFL in passing yards by 128 with 817.
The Raiders’ signal caller has been referred to as “Captain Checkdown” by some but after two weeks, he’s tied for fourth with 12 deep passing attempts and only one attempt behind the three-way tie for first place. Also, he has the third-highest PFF passing grade (95.4) on such throws, and he’s thrown two bombs down the field to seal both of Las Vegas’ victories.
A lot of people have claimed that Carr needs the situation to be perfect around him to succeed, but yesterday was far from perfect. The Raiders began the game down two starting offensive linemen in Denzelle Good and Richie Incognito, and they lost another starter at halftime after Alex Leatherwood suffered an oblique injury.
Plus, the team’s receiving corps was rather lackluster against the Ravens, but the quarterback found a way to get them involved this weekend and put on an outstanding performance despite all this adversity.
Carr even showed how tough he is after getting rolled up on and not missing any game time with the injury.
I could go on and on but the point is, Carr might be playing his best football right now and should start getting more positive attention.
LOSER: Damon Arnette
When you’re a player who is playing a reduced role and getting limited reps, you have to make the reps you do get count, and Damon Arnette failed to do that on Sunday.
Arnette’s biggest blunder from the game was when he got beat deep by Chase Claypool for a 52-yard gain.
Claypool was able to win at the line of scrimmage and force Arnette to play from behind, where the latter’s questionable speed came into play and the wideout was able to create more than enough separation to make a diving grab. Then, to make matters worse, the cornerback starts pouting instead of touching Claypool down, who would get up and tack on about 10 more yards after the catch.
In my opinion, the end of that play was probably more concerning than the beginning. Especially when going against a talent like Claypool, getting beat in coverage happens and is part of the game. However, compounding the error by making a rookie mistake as a veteran player is quite frankly unacceptable and it doesn't help that Arnette was already in the doghouse.
He finished the game against the Steelers allowing two catches on four targets for 58 yards, which is a lot considering he only participated in 13 coverage snaps.
To be fair, Arnette did have one pass break up so his day wasn’t all bad, but he does need to pick things up and eliminate the mental mistakes if he wants to get more playing time and live up to his status as a first-round pick.
WINNER: Henry Ruggs III
Last week, I listed Henry Ruggs III and the Raiders’ wide receivers as losers and stated that they needed to step up moving forward if the team is going to have sustained success. Today, I’m gladly eating a few servings of crow and I’ll take credit for motivating Ruggs and the crew to put together the performance they did yesterday.
Ruggs was targeted seven times and finished with five catches for 113 yards and the fourth-quarter touchdown referenced above to help seal the game. These are the types of outings Las Vegas was looking for when they spent a first-round pick on him.
The Steelers were determined to take away Darren Waller with double teams and bracket coverage, and Ruggs was able to make them pay by burning them deep. As long as Waller is around, the Alabama product doesn't need to be the team’s top or number one option in the passing game. But he does need to emerge as a secondary weapon for Carr and that’s exactly what Ruggs showed on Sunday.
As a whole, the Raiders’ receiving corps played a lot better than they did a week ago.
Against Baltimore, Waller had 19 targets and accounted for about 25 percent of the team’s receiving yards and no one else was targeted more than nine times.
Yesterday, the rest of the crew took some of the pressure off the tight end, as three players had seven targets - Ruggs, Waller and Hunter Renfrow - while Kenyan Drake had six, and Bryan Edwards and Foster Moreau each had three. Also, Waller only accounted for about 17 percent of the team’s receiving yards this time around.
LOSER: Run Blocking
Heading into the contest, it looked like the Raiders might struggle to move the ball on the ground. As mentioned above, the team was down a couple of starting offensive linemen and the Steelers have a fearsome front seven that make it difficult for fully healthy offenses to run the ball. Unfortunately, these preconceived notions became a reality on Sunday.
As a team, Las Vegas rushed for just 52 yards on 25 carries, giving them an average of just 2.1 yards per attempt and no rushing touchdowns. The Silver and Black’s offensive line got pushed around upfront and struggled to create rushing lanes.
Kolton Miller, Brandon Parker, John Simpson and Jermaine Eluemunor all earned sub-40 PFF run-blocking grades, while tight ends Moreau and Waller landed in the mid-40s. Center Andre James showed a vast improvement in the ground game, going from a 28.5 grade last week to 54.8 on Sunday, but the latter is still below average. Alex Leatherwood was the only big ugly to break the 60-mark, but he only participated in 11 rushes.
However, it wasn’t all bad for the Raiders upfront. They were able to run the ball with more success to bleed some clock at the end of the game, and they were missing their top back in Josh Jacobs. So there are plenty of reasons to think they can turn it around and will be fine moving forward.
WINNER: Solomon Thomas
After Gerald McCoy suffered a season-ending injury against the Ravens, the Raiders’ depth at defensive tackle became a question mark and they needed someone to step up. Yesterday, that player was Solomon Thomas, who had arguably the best game of his career.
During Thomas’ four seasons in San Francisco, he had three sacks in 14 games as a rookie, one in 16 the year after, two in year three and none last season. He recorded his first multi-sack game on Sunday, bringing Ben Roethlisberger down twice.
The former 49er also currently holds the eighth-highest pass-rush grade (79.0) at his position for the week and registered four pressures at a win rate of 21.1 percent. To put a cherry on top of his big performance, Thomas also batted a pass down at the line of scrimmage.
He was exactly what the team needed him to be this weekend, and that’s to be effective in the defensive line’s rotation and be able to play on all three downs. We knew Thomas can hold his own against the run, but his prowess as a pass rusher was questionable so it’s good to see him put together a game like this one. Hopefully, this will serve as a sign of what’s to come moving forward.
LOSER: Cory Littleton
After putting together a disappointing 2020 campaign, there was hope this offseason that Cory Littleton could turn it around with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley at the helm. However, that hasn't been the case after the first two games of the season.
For what it’s worth, Littleton’s overall PFF grade (30.4) ranks 90th out of the 93 linebackers that have taken at least 32 snaps this season. What might be most concerning though, is it doesn’t seem like he’s corrected the mistakes he was making last season.
In 2020, the free-agent signing had the most missed tackles of his career with 14 and the highest missed tackle rate, 15.4 percent, since his rookie season. This year he’s already up to four, three of which came in Pittsburgh, and is sitting at a clip of about 22.2 percent. Those figures are currently tied for the fourth- and 12th-highest marks at the position in the league.
Littleton’s coverage numbers aren’t much better either. He’s been targeted seven times so far this season, allowing all seven to be completed for 69 yards and a passer rating of 107.7 when targeted.
The organization brought him in for his tackling and coverage skills, so it’s safe to say that the former Ram isn’t living up to expectations. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn it around, but Nicholas Morrow and Javin White are eligible to return from injured reserve after the upcoming Dolphins game, and the Raiders’ linebacker room is already rather crowded.
While it would certainly be a big surprise, Littleton could end up getting benched and/or cut when either or both of those two return if he doesn’t pick it up soon.